Archive for The Great Dictator

The Sunday Intertitle: Gamin(e)

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2022 by dcairns

The choppy narrative of MODERN TIMES could have worked in Chaplin’s favour when he’s incarcerated for the first time: the story can shift over to introduce our leading lady. Instead, he has himself immediately released, offscreen miracle cure effected — his white-coated shrink (Dr. Kugelschlapp, never to be seen again) whacks him heartily on the back after cautioning him to avoid excitement. Charlie walks out of what looks like a library into a dervish-like montage of Dutch tilts. Finds his way to the docks, and innocently involves himself in a labour protest attacked by police.

This is fascinating for reasons beyond Lumet’s great line — “My God, the execution!” — Chaplin avoids making his character politically aware. He’s just trying to helpfully return a red flag. But the film can be political: a peaceful protest is attacked by cops on horseback. I’m not aware of a great many other films of the thirties which show that kind of action. Even at Warners.

You can argue that Chaplin’s indirect approach — surely a lot of audiences don’t think about the underlying assumptions about cops versus workers here — perhaps robs the commentary of punch. But the fact that it’s even there is remarkable. And doubtless a black mark on Chaplin’s FBI file, though the Feds don’t seem too hot at textual analysis.

This is all just an unusually longterm set-up for a meet cute, since on that same waterfront dwells wild-eyed banana snatcher Paulette Goddard, “the gamin.” The most prominent spelling mistake in cinema.

The whole character is interesting. Edna Purviance may have occasionally played juveniles, but this is the first major Chaplin heroine I can think of explicitly typed as a kid. (Merna, in THE CIRCUS, under her father’s thumb until recued by marriage, is a strong candidate though.) The former Ziegfeld girl was 26, old by Chaplin’s usual standards, but he casts her young to make up for it. The two were dating, but kept their relationship non-specific for the press, since marriage was not in their immediate plans.

Chaplin wrote in his plans for the film that there would be no hint of sex in the screen relationship. Probably wise, given his by now apparent middle-age (a spry forty-seven). But then he introduces his co-star lustily eating a banana, which, given his own must-publicised orality, could be a Freudian signifier or what I’m sure I don’t know.

Paulette, as Chaplin’s first leading lady since Edna to star in more than one movie with him (THE GREAT DICTATOR is next), is a significant figure. She encouraged Chaplin to make re-establish contact with his two sons, Sydney and Charles Jr. Sydney recalled sharing a bed with her until it was noticed the boys were getting a mite too old for that, and the pity of it is their pleas — “Why can’t we sleep with Paulette?” — would, by their very ardency, have made the ban more final.

The gamin has some young siblings — don’t worry, too young even for Chaplin — throwaway sentimentality — they’ll get taken away by the authorities, never to be worried about again. The child welfare people, as in THE KID, are a Dickensian social menace. But the true purpose of these characters, like Monsieur Verdoux’s wife, is to justify the gamin’s criminality. Her father, a listless victim of unemployment, is a micro-nod to the film’s social conscience.

The fact that Charlie is arrested by the docks and bundled into a police wagon suggests to me that Chaplin may have intended the tramp and the gamin to meet up immediately after his initial arrest. But instead we now get a whole prison sequence, leaving Paulette’s introduction lying there, not so much a plot thread as an off-cut, waiting to be picked up later.

So now we’re off to jail…

Rich Man, Poor Man

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2022 by dcairns

Chaplin also described the origin of the rich inebriate subplot in CITY LIGHTS. In My Autobiography he recounts a story idea whereby the Tramp would be plucked from poverty by rich dilettantes, and established in a townhouse, shown a life of luxury for a day, then returned to the gutter while he slept. All as a kind of experiment or bet. Waking, he would regard his day of wealth as a dream.

This sounds quite a lot like TRADING PLACES: it only needs the reverse procedure to be added. Chaplin liked his dreams, of course — even THE GREAT DICTATOR was at one point supposed to end with Charlie waking up.

After a brief interlude establishing the blind girl’s home life with granny, Chaplin cuts to the riverside, where the drunken millionaire arrives with a suitcase. Unusually well prepared, he has in it a rope and a rock. Charlie arrives moments later, ignoring his companion until he belatedly realises what’s afoot. He then launches into a speech, in intertitle form, on the joys of life. Chaplin was almost as capable of making fun of sentimentality as he was of indulging in it / elevating it to art.

The first gag of the sequence — though Charlie’s initial failure to notice the glaring suicide attempt before him is pretty funny — comes when the despairing drunk accidentally throws his rope over Charlie’s neck as well as his own, then accidentally slips out of it, so that it’s the unwitting Samaritan who gets yanked into the drink. Chaplin, who certainly felt desperate at times, does not ask us to feel sorry for the rich man — in fact, at the film’s end, no solution is offered to the man’s aimless self-destructive lifestyle. His purpose is to create trouble for Charlie. Chaplin is smart enough to know that his audience is not too likely to be moved by the “problems” of the very rich. Charlie doesn’t share these problems because he has a purpose in life.

Filming this scene led to another production hiccup. Chaplin had befriended a classically-trained actor and cast him as the drunk, working closely with him on the part. But when they got to this first scene, the actor begged off, asking that they wait a few hours until the studio tank had been warmed by the sun. Already facing difficulties with Virginia Cherrill, Chaplin flew into a rage, called off shooting for the day, fired his friend, closed the iron door on him, and eventually recast the part with Harry Myers, who is excellent, as everyone always is in Chaplin films.

Myers had been a leading man ten years before (ROBINSON CRUSOE) but was sliding down into bit parts — in that capacity he’d later work in talkies with Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.

The sequence illustrates Chaplin’s skill in escalating a crisis and creating problems. Having inadvertently sent his saviour into the drink, the drunk is determined to save him — but he must take his jacket and shoes off first.

After the eventual rescue — or, at any rate, after the drunk joins Charlie in the river — he is full of renewed joi de vivre, declares Charlie his best buddy in the world, and the two sodden gentlemen head home, watched by a suspicious policeman trying out for a part in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

At the palatial home, we meet the butler and learn that the drunkard’s wife is leaving him, the only backstory he gets. Chaplin may have been thinking of doing more with this, but he chooses not to. Nothing more is needed. Both men appear to have dried off remarkably fast, but are rumpled. Booze is taken — a mistake, as it increases loss of body temperature, and anyway, one of these guys has had enough. Also, the drunk accidentally pour the bottle down Charlie’s trousers.

A useful comic device is the character who is well-meaning, seems to offer help to the hero, but due to some character flaw creates more trouble than he’s worth. Look at the whole series of non-rescues Brian endures at the end of MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN. The drunk is a deus ex machine, but he has to be equipped with quirks that will hamper his helpful descent from Olympus. His shambling inebriation is one, but his goldfish amnesia is the other. One provides entertainment for us, the other moves the plot on via a series of interruptions. Oh, and there’s his intermittent but very urgent desire to pop his clogs. Seizing a gun with ludicrous abruption he takes aim at his temple and Charlie has to intervene again.

The film abruptly rediscovers sound: the gun makes a gunshot noise, and when Myers slumps on the piano there’s a thunk of keys being hit. Both are the kind of sounds a silent movie orchestra pit might produce, but they’re here, now, in synch on the soundtrack. Whereas all the falling in the water produced not a single splash. I guess Chaplin is thinking in terms of replacing the live accompaniment, rather than adding anything beyond its abilities.

Chaplin now gets to do his own drunk act as the boys head out to paint the town red. Painful business with cigars. Charlie sets a lady’s dress ablaze and extinguishes it with a soda syphon. Sennett-type amusement in a sequence that echoes THE ROUNDERS and A NIGHT OUT. A brief suggestion of a tracking shot, one of those directionless drifts away from the action Chaplin would occasionally indulge in.

They are then served spaghetti (the gag potential of this pasta dish always cause Chaplin to ignore the unlikelihood of its turning up on the menu of a swank establishment). Descending ticker tape is confused with the spag. Typical of Charlie’s luck: for once he’s offered free food, and instead ingests a falling stream of paper. Failing to notice this (he’s evidently VERY drunk) Charlie slowly ascends from his chair, a man in a dream, (he hasn’t been THIS plastered since THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR) ruminating upon the endless ribbon. The drunk, who is now apparently the more rational and observant one, rescues him.

Chaplin starts to have fun with a swanee whistle effect on his pasta, another pit orchestra device, here available to sync perfectly forever, without relying on the reflexes of countless overworked musicians (who will now be unemployed, reduced to Chaplinesque indigence themselves).

Now there’s an apache dance — this is a peculiar idea of a nightclub. I think Chaplin is capitalising on his presumed audience’s unfamiliarity with such joints. It’s just a series of disconnected ideas of nightlife, crammed together into one implausible spot. The drunks’ response to the violent dance routine is about what you’d expect, and had already been played for laughs in a French talkie, CHIQUE, the previous year.

There’s also a jazz band wearing Russian peasant smocks. Chaplin does another track-back, through the ecstatically undercranked dancers, and this one feels more purposeful, the reason for getting the dolly out in the first place. A second camera move pursues the dancers’ feet, alighting on Charlie’s, which are becoming compulsively happy, due to the rhythm. Dervishlike, he leaps onto the dance floor, abducting another man’s wife, then a waiter, before collapsing in his buddy’s arms, his brain spun into an alcoholic froth.


The Sunday Intertitle: Big Top Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2022 by dcairns

Back to THE CIRCUS at last. Or almost.

I gave a talk recently at college about another Josephine the monkey star vehicle, THE CAMERAMAN, where I said the one thing keeping the film of the list of top Keaton movies is the long sequence where Buster goes on a date with the girl. Not that the sequence isn’t good, but it’s unrelated to the central theme of Buster trying to become a successful newsreel photographer. Whereas in, say, THE GENERAL, everything that happens supports several interlaced themes — winning the girl, of course,and also getting into the army, and then, once the train is stolen, getting the train back and foiling the enemy attack. In THE CAMERAMAN the middle sequence does advance the romantic struggle but it ignores the method Buster has identified as the means to that end.

That may be why Chaplin opted not to include a neat, self-contained bit in THE CIRCUS where he tries to impress Merna Kennedy by decking a prizefighter. The prizefighter has been bribed to take a fall, so the whole thing is a set-up. Using fraudulent means to impress the girl is something Charlie is not above, since his tightrope act elsewhere in the film is planned as the same kind of gag. The only trouble with the prizefighter is that he’s not a big top attraction.

The sequence was shot by Chaplin during one of the production’s several shut-downs: a fire at his studio had destroyed the tent. So he invented something that didn’t need a tent, adding a circus intro to it once he’d acquired a sufficiency of canvas.

Charlie calls on Merna. He’s wearing a longer, more flared coat than usual, evidently his Sunday best. Begged or borrowed or bought since he started at the circus, presumably, since tramps don’t typically have a lot of wardrobe changes. He practices tightroping on a rake while waiting for her, with predictable consequences.

An overexposed walk in the Californian sunshine, an uncommon tracking or trucking shot. Annoyingly, Rex, Charlie’s romantic rival turns up, the real high-wire man. These handsome rivals are always rather dull figures in Chaplin, but they don’t need to be anything else. Rex is played by Harry Crocker, nephew of a big baking tycoon, sometime assistant to Chaplin, perhaps a result of his fondness for hobnobbing with the nobs of society — Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS is another. Crocker had a few roles prior to this, including two bit parts for King Vidor, which suggests he may have been an uncredited assistant for KV also. He also opened a movie props museum on Sunset Blvd. in 1928, about which little is known. I think I saw a reference to it in a twenties movie mag while researching THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

The trip to the cafe involves an attempt by Charlie to show he can outdo Rex at good deeds. This goes horribly wrong when he tries to help a stroppy woman with a dropped package of fish. The clever touch here is making the woman really obnoxious, so that not only does the small act of kindness turn into a prolonged, Sisyphean and odorous ordeal, the beneficiary isn’t even deserving: she could be Mr. Muckle’s daughter. Charlie can ultimately walk off and leave her with her groceries still smeared on the sidewalk and we’re on his side.

The prizefighter sequence depends on great splitscreen work from Rollie Totheroh, turning actor Doc Stone into pugilist Twin Spud and his brother, who is presumably also called Twin Spud. So it’s another of Chaplin’s doppelganger conceits, like the ones in THE IDLE CLASS and THE GREAT DICTATOR, only this time it’s not Charlie who’s doubled. Spud’s bullying of Charlie is horrible. It seems out of character for him to agree to Charlie’s ruse, and optimistic of Charlie to expect him to keep up his end of it. But the gag goes wrong not because of treachery on Spud’s part, but because of his failure to mention that he has an identical twin.

When Charlie starts fighting with the wrong twin, not only does he fail to score a glorious victory to impress Merna, he gets ignominiously rescued by Rex.

The best part of this is Charlie “taking back” his money from the wrong twin, who’s lying prone having been decked by Rex.

We can’t be certain why this decent, but slightly upsetting sequence wasn’t included in the released version of THE CIRCUS. Nor do we know why Chaplin decided not to follow his original plan of introducing his character as a flea circus proprietor, which would have made us of the gag sequence devised way back at Essanay. I guess that sequence wouldn’t have set up the story, and it was better to have Charlie be a newcomer to circus life. Still, Chaplin had no objection to beginning CITY LIGHTS with a sequence which isn’t essential to the story. He DID take the flea circus proprietor’s name, Professor Bosco, and give it to the put-upon magician in THE CIRCUS.

Waste not, want not.